By Laura Liang
If green is the new black, baby diapers are anything but stylish. It turns out that all diapering choices—cloth, disposable, and hybrid—come with potential problems for Mother Earth. Because no method is absolutely environmentally friendly, the quandary persists: Wash or toss?
Unfortunately, science hasn’t yet settled the debate. Until recently, studies on the environmental impact of diapers were funded by either the disposable or cloth diaper industries. The results were predictably biased, and each side of the argument called foul.
The United Kingdom broke this trend with a 2005 study from The Environment Agency, a British government bureau. It found virtually no difference between the environmental effects of cloth and disposable diapers. In fact, the authors wrote, “For one child, over two and a half years, these impacts are roughly comparable with driving a car between 1,300 and 2,200 miles.” Issue settled, right? Not so fast. A Dutch study completed last spring concluded that cloth diapers are as much as seven times better for the environment than conventional disposable diapers. Confused? It’s no wonder. But it all boils down to this: Washing cloth diapers consumes water. Conventional diapers take up landfill space. And even new hybrid products have potential problems.
While expecting her first child in 2007, Alex Kennaugh faced this problem head-on. As director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Green Living program, she talked to water consumption specialists, scientists studying the effects of chemicals in laundry detergents, and landfill experts. But she had no moment when the heavens opened revealing a ray of light shining on the perfect diaper. “There never seemed to be a clear answer about environmental effects of diapers—what was better or worse,” she says. Let’s review the data, shall we?
Before her daughter, Quinn, was born in 2007, Stephanie Wood didn’t give diapers much thought. “There was too much else to research,” the Shamong, NJ, public relations professional says. Quinn was born early—at a tiny 5 pounds, 6 ounces—and only preemie disposable diapers fit her. After Quinn gained some weight, Wood searched for greener options, and that’s when her head began to spin.
“Is it six of one, half-a-dozen of the other? I just had to make a decision,” she says. “Diapers shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but they were.” After a failed trial run with hybrids, Wood finally gave in to conventional disposables. “We had the best intentions,” she says.
Wood shouldn’t have worried about it, says Carlos Richer, founder of Richer Investment Diaper Consulting Services, a Mexico-based company that advises the disposable diaper industry. Design improvements mean that parents are using fewer diapers each day. And besides, he agrees with The Environment Agency study: Between conventional disposables and cloth diapers, the environmental differences are a wash. But there is no denying the fact that disposable diapers are not particularly Earth-friendly. There are several significant issues to consider: production, distribution, packaging, and disposal.
The main components of most conventional disposable diapers are a polyethylene film, which can be made to look and feel like cloth; a cellulose pad; and sodium polyacrylate or super-absorbent polymer (SAP). Manufacturing conventional diapers produces air and water pollution. In addition, trees are felled to make the cellulose pads, and the plastics are made with non-renewable oil.
Of course, disposable diapers don’t magically appear on our store shelves. Transporting merchandise requires gallons of gasoline, using more resources and polluting the air. Because disposables are one time use products, they must be restocked, and that means more trucks on the road. Those cartons of diapers travel from the store to homes in the back of thousands of minivans. And then they inevitably make a final journey from homes to landfills.
But the biggest impact of disposables might very well be in their actual disposal. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 3.6 million tons of disposable diapers—or 2.1 percent of the total waste—went into U.S. landfills in 2006. “Essentially, you’re entombing the poo or pee in a landfill for 500-plus years,” says Christopher Gavigan, executive director and CEO of Healthy Child, Healthy World a non-profit environmental organization in Los Angeles.
There is good news, however. Although the traditional disposable diaper brands are most popular, several environmentally friendlier designs are now showing up on the market. And now overseas companies offer biodegradable options. That’s the route Kennaugh ultimately decided to take.
“Because the diaper is made out of a natural fiber, it decomposes,” Kennagh says. “It’s basically organic material.” But—you guessed it—there’s a drawback here, too. Unless you compost diapers in your backyard (which we do not recommend), it’s likely that even biodegradable diapers will languish in a landfill for longer than you might think. Landfills are not designed to help further the degradation process. “Even a banana peel—you’re not 100 percent sure that it will biodegrade in every landfill,” Richer says.
So if disposable diapers are bad for that many aspects of the environment, cloth must be the answer, right? Not quite. The potential problem with cloth is three-fold—cotton production, as well as water and energy use. “Cotton is the most pesticide-reliant crop in the world, by far,” says Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of Pesticide Action Network North America. About 10 percent of all pesticides and 25 percent of all insecticides are used on cotton crops. To reduce the use of these toxins, the cotton industry introduced genetically modified cotton, which poses its own problems, such as resistance to certain bacteria.
In addition, cotton is a thirsty plant. That’s not usually an issue in places like Georgia, where rainfall is sufficient. But cotton is a popular crop in western states and countries such as Uzbekistan, where the Aral Sea has been all but eradicated by crop irrigation. That’s why Scholl-Buckwald recommends choosing organic cotton, hemp, or bamboo diapers. And that’s never been easier for parents. “The baby market [for these fabrics] is huge,” he says.
Bethany Dias of Raleigh, NC, found another option: “I’ve made all of my diapers out of reused materials,” she says. Dias has also committed to reducing energy and water consumption that comes with washing loads of diapers each week. She’s estimated that her front-load washer helps reduce water consumption by 20 percent. And to conserve energy, she air-dries diapers.
On the other hand, diaper services present unique environmental problems. First, larger washing machines typically use more energy and water. Diaper services also pick up and deliver the diapers, which takes fuel. Even without a diaper service, green blogger Kathleen Ridihalgh of Seattle found cloth diapering her 2 year old to be a lot easier than she expected. “It just became the way life was,” she says.
If washing loads of diapers isn’t your thing and you’re not sold on conventional diapers, the hybrid may be your best option. Usually made of cloth covers with flushable inserts, hybrids offer the best of both worlds, while avoiding some of the environmental pitfalls. “You’re putting poop where poop belongs,” Gavigan says. He chose hybrid diapers when his son Luke was born a year ago. “They were hard to use at the beginning, but after one or two months, we were cruising along.”
Ideally, only the insert is soiled, which means that the cloth pant can be reused several times before washing. But having enough on hand seems to be the key. Wood gave up on them when her daughter wet through both pair during the day. Gavigan keeps a stash of about eight hybrid cloth pants.
Parents with low-flow toilets or who have sensitive septic tanks may find that flushing the inserts may not be possible. Breaking up the insert and swishing it around in the toilet can help, but that is not for everyone. Still hybrid proponents insist that these diapers are a great option, even if the biodegradable inserts are thrown away.
The Bottom Line
There’s no magical answer to the diaper dilemma. Whether cloth or disposable or hybrid, diapering our babies’ bottoms does have an environmental impact. “Being a mom and a dad, there are a lot of compromises, and there’s a lot of sacrifice,” Gavigan says. But we can also ease up on our personal expectations. “Not being super critical is an important thing about being a parent.” Kennaugh agrees. “It doesn’t have to be a Sophie’s choice,” she says. “I’m all for convenience for moms.”
There is another option for brave parents: No diapers at all! With elimination communication (EC), parents predict when their little ones need to pee or poop and get them to the bathroom stat. As crazy as it may sound, parents who take this approach (it can be used from birth) say it offers far more than ecological benefits, including a close connection with their babies. Unfortunately, the time investment—not to mention the carpet cleaner for those moments when the communication lines get crossed—may be too much for some parents to fathom.
For more information on EC, go to naturalbirthandbabycare.com
Laura Laing’s writing has appeared in Parents and The Advocate. She’s hoping that by the time she has another child, the diaper debate will be settled once and for all—but she’s not holding her breath.